By SCOTT M. JOHNSON
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Too many time zones, a short week, an inexperienced quarterback and a focused opponent. The Seattle Seahawks were deep enough in a hole before Sunday’s game.
Then they just kept digging, deeper and deeper, until everything almost turned to black on a cool night at Ericcson Stadium. By the time the burial was over, the Seahawks found themselves on the wrong end of a 26-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers and wondering how to get things turned around before it’s too late.
“This is another wakeup call for us,” punt returner Charlie Rogers said. “We need to go out, and next week we need to get a win. Our backs are against the wall. We’ve dug ourselves a hole, and now we need to get out of it.”
The Seahawks certainly aren’t ready to throw in the towel yet, but Sunday’s loss pushes them further down in fourth place in the AFC West – a game-and-a-half behind the top three teams.
What made the loss even more difficult was how it happened, as the Seahawks (2-4) were plagued by penalties, dropped balls and a plethora of other mistakes.
“There were breakdowns in every facet of the game,” said quarterback Brock Huard, who made his first NFL start Sunday. “Everyone broke down on plays here or there, and you can’t do that.”
Huard was generally ineffective in his first NFL start, but he didn’t get much help. The Seahawks dropped five passes, couldn’t seem to complete passes near the first-down markers, and were plagued by penalties. In a game filled with staggering statistics, the two that stood out most were a season-high 12 penalties and 0-for-11 conversion on third downs.
“Coming out flat is no excuse,” linebacker Chad Brown said. “We are paid, and paid well, to come out and play football. To come out and be flat is inexcusable. You only get so many opportunities to play this game, and you should be excited about every opportunity.”
Seattle’s flatness may have had something to with a long road trip to the East Coast. An otherwise insignificant part of the game, the Seahawks’ travels this season have directly affected their play. In two games in the Eastern time zone, Seattle has been outscored 49-3.
“It’s a long trip,” wide receiver Sean Dawkins said. “This East Coast thing ain’t working out so far. We’ve got to come cross country, and play ball.”
A sluggish start was the Seahawks’ biggest problem again Sunday.
Seattle’s first play from scrimmage was a 9-yard pass from Huard to Darrell Jackson in the left flat, which turned out to be the lone highlight of the first half. A penalty eventually killed that drive after three plays, and Seattle got just one first down before halftime. During that span, Huard completed 7 of 13 passes for 38 yards. Perhaps more significant, the team twice ran draw plays on third-and-long from deep in its own territory to protect the young quarterback.
Carolina’s offense wasn’t flashy, but it was much more effective. By halftime, the Panthers held big advantages in total yards (285 to 52), first downs (17 to 1), and time of possession (19:44 to 10:16). Carolina also held a 20-0 advantage following touchdown passes from Steve Beuerlein to Donald Hayes and William Floyd as well as a pair of field goals from Joe Nedney.
And that wasn’t even the worst news for Seattle’s offense through the first 30 minutes. Guard Pete Kendall, wide receiver Derrick Mayes and fullback Reggie Brown all left the game with injuries and did not return to the playing field in the second half.
Things did not get much better in the second half. Not until the final minute of the third quarter did Seattle get on the board, as Rian Lindell’s 42-yard field goal marked the first points Seattle had scored east of the Mississippi all season.
The Seahawks put up respectable offensive stats in the second half, and Huard completed 19 of 34 passes for a modest 172 yards on the night, but there were too many holes in the dam and not enough fingers to make up for the awful start.
“You could just tell. The mood of the team was flat when we came out,” fullback Mack Strong. “We came in at halftime and tried to re-group. On offense, we got a little better and put a few drives together, but couldn’t get it into the end zone. That was frustrating. We can’t afford to come out flat in this league. You’ve got to be ready to come out and play.”
Coach Mike Holmgren was understandably upset after the game, hitting the nail on the head when he said: “Give Carolina credit. We were outplayed, and outcoached, in every facet of the football game today.”
When asked later to expand upon the outcoaching part, he said: “They have 15 coaches, we have 15. All 15 of their coaches were better than my 15.”
The final statistics from the game made one wonder whether it was worse than the season-opening, 23-0 loss to Miami.
In Sunday’s game, the dozen penalties matched the Seahawks’ total through their first four games. The third-down conversion rate was Seattle’s worst in at least two seasons. And a late drive against a disinterested Carolina defense was the only thing that kept the Seahawks from gaining sub-200 yardage for the second time this season – a feat that they never accomplished in 1999. The Seahawks finished with 209 yards, 238 less than Carolina.
“There was so much bad today,” Holmgren said. “To say one thing was worse than another would be unfair to the bad things. … We were lousy.”
The Panthers (2-3) were on the other end of the emotional scale, bouncing back overwhelmingly from a 16-13 overtime loss to Dallas last week. Beuerlein completed 27 of 39 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle and Tshimanga Biakabutuka had 103 rushing yards to put him over the 100-yard barrier for the first time in more than a year.
By all accounts, the Panthers have cured their ills. Seattle is suddenly searching for some medicine of its own.
“It’s not time to panic yet,” Rogers said. “We had a rough game. They out-executed us today, they out-game-planned us, they outplayed us. It happens sometimes. This is the NFL and they get paid just like we do. It’s not time to hang our heads. The answer for this is to go out and win next week.”
For inspiration, Chad Brown looked into his own past.
“I always point to the year that I was with the Steelers and we went to the Super Bowl,” Brown said. “We started the year 3-4, and everybody wrote us off. We lost to Cincinnati, which is bad; everybody said we were done. And we went to the Super Bowl. So it can be done.”
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